By Sarah Siock
Over 100 students, faculty and alumni joined a virtual discussion with six Motown music legends to learn about the backstage happenings of the first Black-owned record label in the U.S.
The student-moderated discussion took place on Oct. 30 as part of the virtual homecoming and family weekend events. The panelists at the discussion were Motown singer Martha Reeves, former Motown sales executive Miller London, former vice president of Motown Records Iris Gordy, songwriter Janie Bradford, vocal artist Mary Wilson and the first female artist at Motown Records, Claudette Robinson.
The high-profile panel was made possible due to the connections Pamela Pruitt, executive director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, has within the Motown music industry. Pruitt is a Grammy-award winning songwriter, who wrote songs under the name Pamela Moffett for Smokey Robinson, The Supremes and many other prominent Motown artists.
“The panelists are my friends. I have known them since I was little. I grew up loving their music and I still love their music. They all mean something to me in different ways. I wanted to showcase them and their stories because it is so relevant,” said Pruitt.
Motown Records was founded in 1959 in Detroit, Michigan, and played a crucial role in the racial integration of popular music. The record company helped launch the careers for some of music’s biggest names such as Stevie Wonder and The Jackson 5.
The panelists described the confidence and leadership they gained from being members of Motown groups at young ages.
“The Civil Rights bill had not passed yet. When you are told as a Black person that you are nothing and then to hear that from an adult you were diamonds and they were there to polish you. That was such a wonderful thing,” said Wilson. “ It made us feel like great human beings. It was not about our color, but who we were as human beings and artists. For me, that is something that I still carry with me everywhere I go.”
During Wilson’s time with the record company, she sang alongside Motown superstar Diana Ross in the successful vocal group The Supremes. Wilson is a founding member of the group which is known for several iconic songs such as, “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Come See About Me.”
The event was moderated by junior film and television major Danielle Jackson who asked the panelists about several topics including the inspirations behind Motown’s music and the process of creating a hit song.
“The messages of their songs are timeless. A majority of Motown music is inclusive and jovial which allows it to resonate across generations. A lot of students would be surprised to find out a number of the songs or artists they listen to today have either sampled, covered or were inspired by the artists of Motown,” said Jackson.
The panelists detailed the strict procedure used to produce Motown’s music. The record label was run similar to a factory assembly line, where there was a definite formula followed to create hit after hit. The process was proven successful with more than 190 top-charting songs released from the record label.
“The producers would compete with each other, but it was a collaborative competition. You would get in those meetings and everybody would have what they thought was the hit record that would be the next release. If your song did not come out of that meeting a winner it was not going to be the next release,” said Gordy.
Gordy worked as an executive at Motown as the former vice president and a producer. She is the niece of Motown Records’ founder Berry Gordy.
“Barry was harder on his family than anybody there because he wanted people to know he was not playing favorites. It was about getting the job done. He always surrounded himself with the very best. He was able to grab the best potential out of every artist that walked through the door,” she said.
The other panelists echoed Gordy’s remarks and agreed they were surrounded by immense talent while working at Motown.
Robinson described watching Motown grow over the years as a member of the first vocal group at the record company, The Miracles. The group launched the career of Motown megastar Smokey Robinson, whom Claudette Robinson was married to from 1959 to 1986.
“When we came along there were not any other artists. It was just four guys and me as the lone girl. All these wonderful female artists and male artists followed. It has been my pleasure then as is now to know them. It is almost like going back in history and seeing them and the wonderful experiences that we have all shared and that we still share,” she said.
The Motown artists also detailed incidents of racism they faced while on tour. Reeves, the lead singer of Martha Reeves and Vandellas, said her group was once forced out by police for attempting to use a bathroom at a rest stop that their tour bus stopped at.
“There were definitely dangerous times touring in the south,” said Reeves.
Each Motown artist emphasized the family bond that was formed while working at Motown Records that remains strong today. They expressed the bond as the greatest reward of working in the industry.
“We were a community but more than that we were a family. These people across this screen are still like brothers and sisters to me,” said Reeves.
Editor’s Note: Advertising Manager Danielle Jackson served as the student-moderator of this event. She did not contribute to the writing or editing of this story.
Published in the 11/04/20 issue of The Rider News.